by Marni Pilafian, Mary Becker Mullins and VirginiaW
After the 2016 presidential election, concerned constituents in Virginia’s 7th Congressional District started asking Rep. Dave Brat to meet with them so they could express their concerns and learn more about his positions on critical issues. Brat complained on tape that “the women” were “up in [his] grill” and refused to meet with them. Instead, he responded by holding town halls in venues designed to suppress the voices of unhappy constituents or reinforce the false narrative that they are unreasonable, inappropriate heretics.
In spite of Brat’s evasive tactics, these constituents made their voices heard by calling their elected representatives, demanding answers, and informing others via social media. Some of them have found inspiration and camaraderie in a new local organization, Liberal Women of Chesterfield County & Beyond (LWCC), which includes 2,556 members in areas in and around Chesterfield Country. LWCC was founded by Kim Drew Wright a few days after Trump won the presidential election. These women are not paid for the work they do in the organization—work that includes charity efforts, such as raising funds for schools—they are members of the community who were disappointed with the election results and decided to get involved in local government, to help elect progressive candidates at all levels and to participate in charitable projects to help insure that all the citizens of Chesterfield County can thrive.
As the LWCC mission states, this Chesterfield County volunteer organization strives to be a “safe haven for liberal women and their allies to support, educate, and encourage one another to be actively involved in our government; and, furthermore, seeks to advance advocacy issues and campaigns that align with our progressive values of inclusivity and equal rights for all people.”
In addition to campaigning this past month for the primary election, some candidates have been volunteering with LWCC’s school projects. Candidates Ben Pearson-Nelson of House District (HD) 68, Sheila Bynum-Coleman of HD 62, Larry Barnett of HD 27, Katie Sponsler of HD 66, and Jenefer Hughes (candidate for Commissioner of Revenue of Chesterfield County) have been delivering reams of paper to various schools to provide supplies until the end of the school year, and to introduce themselves to the school administrators. The Education Advocacy Group of LWCC raised over $600 in funds to buy 180 reams of paper, according to Kathleen Caroselli, who raised the funds and bought the paper. They delivered 20 reams of paper each to Bon Air Elementary, Jacobs Road Elementary, Providence Middle School, five other schools, and educational materials for George Wythe High School.
Why is there a shortage of paper?
According to Commissioner of Revenue candidate Jenefer Hughes, “The actual school budget line item for paper was eliminated when Chromebooks [laptops] were introduced to county schools; at the same time Chesterfield County Public Schools eliminated most textbooks. The Chromebooks did not save on paper needs and costs: hard copies of textbook pages and other resources were frequently used and schools actually needed more paper, not less.”
“We hope to donate paper again when the school year starts,” said Sarah Kenner, LWCC volunteer.
In addition to finding and delivering school supplies, volunteers Sandra McNinch, Ashley Taylor, and Kathy Nickele donated several hundred dollars to allow the Huguenot High School track team to travel and compete in the state track meet.
Another major avenue for donations has been payments for total school lunch debts. Volunteers contacted many school offices of various Chesterfield and Henrico County schools to find out what the outstanding total balances were for unpaid school lunches this school year. Becky Conner collected funds to pay off the school lunch money debts of students in several schools. Linda Hughes, working at L.C. Byrd High School for 19 years, manages the school’s dry goods pantry. She graciously accepted a check from Jenefer Hughes, Kim Drew Wright and others.
“I want kids to focus on their school work and not worry about their debt. They have enough to worry about in schools today without worrying about being hungry,” said Jenefer Hughes.
Kim Drew Wright, Becky Conner, Sidra Butt, Lea Arabia, Saadia Siddiqui, Kristi Glass, Mary Mullins, Kelly Marlin, Paula Chamberlain, among many volunteers and several candidates for the primary election, spent countless hours collecting funds, calling schools, even writing their own checks and delivering payments to several administrators to pay off lunch debts for many students. The Muslim women’s Quran study class donated $2,100 to pay off most of the lunch debts at Hening Elementary School. The Chesterfield County Muslim Community Center also donated food to the school’s pantry.
Later in the week, Jenefer Hughes and Lee Dorman delivered a check to pay off lunch debts for $954 to Thomas Dale High School. Mary Mullins and Jenefer Hughes met with Cherel Fitzgerald, Assistant Principal who is also the administrator for the Knights in Need program. It provides a food pantry for kids and their families, as well as clothing and school supplies. The food pantry is empty at the beginning of the year, until the school has time to restock food items. Jenefer Hughes’ and Mary Mullins’ actions encouraged Claire Sheppard to get involved, as an alumna of the school, asking other alumni on social media to help stock the pantry for the start of the coming school year. Shannon McCallister offered to volunteer to share the needs with local church outreach programs.
Other schools have similar issues. Meeting at L.C. Byrd High School with cafeteria manager Linda Hughes, the group made sure that students’ debts were paid and that kids would continue to get fed until the end of the year. “At least 50 kids a week stop by the food pantry to fill their backpacks before they leave the school so their families can eat,” she said. The school also sponsors Food Drives. For many students, incurring lunch debt is just the tip of the iceberg. Many families in Chesterfield would go hungry if it were not for in-school food pantries like the ones at L.C. Bird and Thomas Dale, and asking football fans to help restock the pantry by bringing canned and dry food donations to the games.
“Pasta, corn, green beans, tuna fish, peanut butter- these are staples that families can eat,” said Linda Hughes. The group donated a total of $1,079 at L.C. Byrd High School. The LWCC also paid off lunch debts at other schools, by members or collectively – $180 at Reams Elementary, $117 at Midlothian High School, $400 at Midlothian Middle School, and also paid other totals at Watkins Elementary and Manchester Middle School.
“We hope to do that again during the next school year,” said Kim Drew Wright.
Another concern is that the schools’ food banks are closed during the summer. Some of the schools are talking with groups to refer students to other sites in Chesterfield to pick up food pantry items. The LWCC plans to launch a food drive in August.
“We hope to have a pantry stocked for several schools before the school year starts,” said Kim Drew Wright. “We have a neighborhood group in Petersburg, and we want to be able to assist schools in need all over Chesterfield County. We will continue to help assist food pantries and pay lunch debts by December and continuing for next year.”
The LWCC welcomes new members who wish to become involved by committing acts of kindness. https://www.facebook.com/groups/1267310326622741/
Jenefer Hughes Candidate for Commissioner of Revenue https://www.facebook.com/hughes4cor/
Ben Pearson-Nelson, Candidate for House of Delegates District 68 https://www.facebook.com/drbenfordelegate/
Sheila Bynum-Coleman, Candidate for House of Delegates District 62 https://www.sheilafordelegate.com
Larry Barnett, Candidate for House of Delegates District 27 https://www.facebook.com/Barnett4Delegate/
Katie Sponsler, Candidate for House of Delegates District 66 https://www.facebook.com/sponslerfordelegate/